It’s not always a social indicator

notamusedHere’s a story forwarded to me due to my unpleasant Farmville habit http://tinyurl.com/yz6yjtq. It’s true – I’m one of them. Those jackasses that overload your Facebook with stupid updates from their stupid game. The freaks that rank harvesting yesterday’s soybeans along with checking email and the news feed in their morning activities. The nuts that think you care that they just bought a Big Ol’ Harvester. What the hell is wrong with these people?

I’d like to think I’ve become a more savvy Farmville user in my old age. I decline most of the game’s notification requests, which range from the trivial to the truly pathetic (“Bob just bought a flamingo topiary!” Hell, I’D want to kill myself…), but certain of them are actually part of playing the game. Find a lost sheep, and you put it up for others to adopt (and hope they’ll do the same so you can win the adopt-an-animal ribbon); advance a level, you can post it so that others can get bonus points from your good fortune. It’s a decision every time, and I’ve learned to come down on the side of not posting, but this is Facebook – if you want everything everyone posts to be relevant to you, you’ve come in with the wrong set of expectations.

Life in Farmville

The duck and the horse haven't been on speaking terms since the 2008 election.

Anyway, back to the story. Late in the article, the author points to an argument by some game (no pun intended) academics that Farmville may reflect “a widespread yearning for the pastoral life,” to leave behind the hubbub of modernity (you know, while using a social networking site) and run off to farm country. I know this is the Fashion & Style section, and I know Douglas Quenqua is just doing his job, but these NYT “trend” stories always ring a little false to me, and this one hits that spot. Must there always be a bright line between A and B?

Not only that, the argument suggests a lack of familiarity with gaming and gaming culture. You know what Farmville likely reflects? A desire to collect widgets. The Pokemon people have known this for years. Gamers have been collecting meaningless jinjoes for a long time. One author (whose name I am feverishly trying to remember Edit 148p, 11/6: Found it! Everything Bad is Good for You, by Steven Johnson) even argues that a Legend of Zelda style of learning is ingrained in this generation: To get into the cave, you need to blow up the boulder at the entrance; to do this, you need bombs; for bombs, you have to find the merchant’s cat; the cat is on a pirate ship, and you’ll need a mask to get aboard; and so on. The object is simple – you could get into Death Mountain almost immediately in the first Zelda – but it’s the path that makes the game engaging.

What once was a gamer mindset, though, now pervades culture. Blogs like this one collect links in their posts and their blogrolls, and create something new out of those ingredients. Facebook itself is in many ways a person-collecting application – find old friends, throw out or relish the ones that don’t agree with you, and synthesize a conversation via aggregation. Twitter, which I’ve just joined, distills this collector mentality even farther, stripping away some of Facebook’s Me-orientation in favor of an individual identities that aren’t so much created as coalesced.

So no, I don’t think I’m playing Farmville because I want to escape to the country, anymore than I’m playing Castle Age because I want to be an orc. Why is it the most popular app on Facebook, above fellow Zynga games Mafia Wars (#2) and Cafe World (#3)? Maybe it’s because you can make sheep look cuter than mobsters and parfaits, drawing in a larger market. For me, though, I’m harvesting 400 eggplants at 8 a.m. because I have a weird compulsion to collect trifles, not because I covet the agrarian lifestyle. They could as easily be squid, bent nails or kitten heads, and my hardwired upbringing wouldn’t think twice about trying to catch ’em all.

Well, maybe not the kitten heads.

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4 thoughts on “It’s not always a social indicator

  1. Interesting take. I’ll add to that the problem solving skills that come in the puzzle-solving maze. I found myself pulling out my calculator wondering how much XP I could get planting/harvesting soybeans once a day vs. blueberries 3 times a day given the coin difference that I could use to buy crap and get more XP.

    So is my excel spreadsheet that delineates all of this a sign of sickness? Of course. But there’s an intellectual component to the OCD thrill-of-the chas. At some point, I just need to *know* whether soybeans are the best way to level-up quickly.

    • Absolutely – I’ve got an Excel sheet of my own (Tomatoes, Green Tea and Grapes remain the best yield per day). That’s what I don’t think the article gets, that the appeal draws more on collecting and simple puzzling than on some farm fetish. Though I was pretty stoked when I got Conspiracy Gnome.

  2. Pingback: Mafia Wars, Farmville demonstrate strength of online connections | Give the 'Net credit

  3. Pingback: Learning from WoW, not TMZ | Give the 'Net credit

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